Today in Kentucky was Special Olympics State Bowling Competition held in Louisville, Kentucky. Over 1,500 athletes from all over the state came together at two different bowling alleys to compete for a gold medal.

As the National Anthem played I glanced around the bowling alley and witnessed something special. Bowlers were on their feet some rocking to the music, some singing along loudly, some saluting, and then some holding their hands over their hearts! They stood in that moment with pride and we the spectators in awe of their confidence and excitement. 

I overheard a bowler say to another bowler, “I couldn’t sleep last night. I was excited to try to win me a medal!”  Then he giggled at himself. 

As they waited to start their first game of 2,  I heard another bowler say, “I am going to get me a strike”, with such matter of fact confidence. 

I observed smiling volunteers give high-fives, fist bumps, and thumbs up as they cheered on each athlete. Afterwards I spoke with volunteer who was a high school junior, who shared this was her first time volunteering for Special Olympics. She mentioned she had to get in volunteer hours for school, so she decided to volunteer today. I asked her if she enjoyed it and if she would do it again. She responded with a smile, “My favorite part was cheering them on and seeing their excitement after bowling a strike. I most definitely will do it again, and before today I had no idea how awesome it would be.” It makes my heart want to explode that she will be changed from this experience. She is now aware, she is now an advocate, and she is now more willing to share that with her friends.

In that Kingpin Bowling Alley you could hear rumbles of clapping, cheering, and excitement. Those who sat in the seats watching were parents, volunteers, caretakers (me), friends and family. We sat and enjoyed and embraced the moment. The moment of joy that each athlete gets in their few hours of fame. The moment where we sit to just to witness the presence of pride and independence within them. We celebrated and reflected on the people who volunteer and donate to support Special Olympics in order to make a day like today possible. We in the stands know the story behind each athlete. We can embrace and are aware of the true meaning of the victories today, so we celebrate and cheer together. 

Some people in society might be hesitant to support Special Olympics, because it is a sport in which segregates those with disabilities. Meaning all those with disabilities come together and bowl with one another, and no one can bowl with them who don’t have disabilities. Although I am a huge advocate for inclusion and providing opportunities for integration among those with and without disabilities, I am reminded today how much value comes from Special Olympics. The value that comes with seeing them be among friends of all abilities, who can relate to them. The value that comes from the empowerment within the environment itself. The value of having a moment where their differences are not noticed, but celebrated. The value of competing and loving a sport that brings them joy.

As a sister to an older brother with a disability, I have spent many years being in the cheering section of various Special Olympics sports my brother competed in. One of my favorite memories was when he played basketball. When he became tired, even if it was in the middle of the game, he sat to rest. The coach would scurry to find an athlete to send in his place, because he knew my brother needed a minute. As a young kid, Special Olympic events were the first experiences I had being around others with disabilities. It was where my love and compassion for others with disabilities started to grow. When watching them participate in a sport, I was intrigued by each of their stories. 

Each athlete has their own story.  Their disabilities impact them in various ways. Getting to the bowling alley today maybe caused anxiety and many pre-planning tactics on their family to just get them there. And like my brother, some athletes might not have been able to make it at all for the state games due to circumstances that exist from their disability. Some bowlers looked to the volunteers for encouragement, because their family members weren’t sitting in the cheering section. And some bowlers had families there with phones out capturing pictures, cheering loudly, and smiling every time they walked to the line with their bowling ball.

Today didn’t matter that they had a disability, because no one saw it. Today didn’t matter that on some days they might struggle, because today they soared! The only thing that mattered today was that they were among friends and playing a sport they love!

Today I saw some of the best sportsmanship among athletes. Today I saw how abilities outweigh disabilities. Today I saw my young children watch and absorb the environment like I use too. Today I saw volunteers develop an awareness to become a future advocate. Today I saw athletes not giving up when most of us would feel defeated. Today I saw athletes overcome fear and worries as they held their ball and  walked to the line. Today I saw what I strong athlete looks like. Today I saw the mission of Special Olympics come alive in that Kentucky bowling alley. 

During opening ceremonies I heard an athlete recite the Special Olympics oath over the intercom, “Let me win. But if I cannot win let me be brave in the attempt”. Today I saw more than just bravery, I saw an unspoken story of each athlete that built strength and perseverance! 

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